Home > Uncategorized > Waiting for a vaccine and the collaborative research alternative

Waiting for a vaccine and the collaborative research alternative

from Dean Baker

It seems increasingly likely that China will begin providing vaccines to its own people, as well as those in some other countries, by December, and possibly as early as next month. The prospect of a vaccine being available that soon has to look good to people here, now that the Trump administration’s pandemic control efforts have completely failed. The whole country would like to get back to normal, but that doesn’t seem like a serious possibility until we have an effective vaccine widely available.

It seems China’s leading vaccine makers got ahead of the ones in the U.S. and Europe by using the old-fashioned dead virus approach to developing a vaccine. This is well-known technology that they were apparently able to quickly adapt for a vaccine providing protection against the coronavirus. This allowed for them to get into the field sooner with large-scale Phase 3 tests. It also has apparently created fewer issues with side effects than the mRNA vaccines being pursued here. In addition, the dead virus vaccines do not require super-cold storage, like the mRNA vaccines. That will be a huge problem in the developing world, but also a serious logistic problem even in the United States.

China has followed a path of questionable safety in carrying out large-scale vaccination on emergency use authorization. The people being vaccinated were not just front-line workers in hospitals at high risk of catching the virus, but also students traveling abroad and others who were not in obviously high risk categories. Several hundred thousand people have now received one of China’s vaccines on this basis.

While we may not approve of China’s lax standards, we can still learn from its experience. At this point, we can be fairly well assured that its leading vaccines do not have harmful short-term side effects.

If the United States had pursued a route of open collaborative research, we would now be in a position to start mass producing China’s leading vaccines and distributing them as soon as evidence of its effectiveness was sufficiently established to satisfy the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) standards for approval. Collaborative research would have meant that all the results from clinical trials were freely shared as soon as they were available. This means that we would have the results at the same time as China’s health safety agency, and of course companies here would be free to run their own trials with China’s vaccines.

This sort of collaboration would have had to have been negotiated. Donald Trump, with his “America First” rants had no interest in international collaboration and therefore never tried to negotiate any plan for open research with equitable cost-sharing across countries. Unfortunately, leading Democrats, with their determination to use patent monopolies to increase inequality, never sought to raise the issue either.

As a result of this failed leadership, we may be waiting months longer than necessary for our lives to get back to normal. This will mean tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and hundreds of thousands of avoidable infections, but hey, at least we preserved the idea that we need government-granted patent monopolies to finance research. And, we can create many high-paying jobs for economists and policy types trying to figure out ways to combat inequality.

  1. October 17, 2020 at 2:01 pm

    “And, we can create many high-paying jobs for economists and policy types [pretending] to figure out ways to combat inequality” without actually addressing the root causes of that inequality.

    There. Fixed the last sentence.

    Good piece! Just thought I would alter the sarcasm a tinge.

  2. October 17, 2020 at 2:37 pm

    Thank you, Dean Baker. The last lines are a well written description the hypocrisy and resulting rank failure of Democratic party leadership in service to oligarchy based on wage slavery and austerity.

  3. Ikonoclast
    October 18, 2020 at 1:19 am

    While I agree with the post overall, I want to discuss one statement: “The whole country would like to get back to normal.” This is probably descriptively accurate but prescriptively impossible. Yes, people would like to get back to what they came to perceive as normal. However, the American, Western and advanced Asian “normal” is ecologically and climatalogically impossible if we want to survive. If we want to survive we must NOT get back to normal. Normal will destroy the benign Holocene biosphere and human civilization with it. We have to take the COVID-19 pandemic as a sign and facilitator for NOT getting back to normal. Normal has been the ecologically destructive processes of over-production and over-consumption in capitalism.

    Yes, we do need to continue the expenditure of more real resources (money is meaningless) on vaccines, on public health, on safe food and on fair distribution of necessities to all for a healthy and fulfilled human life WITHIN ecologically sustainable parameters. No, we do not need to restart much of the wasteful paraphernalia of consumer capitalism and the debased values and behaviors which go with it. To do that will be to consign ourselves to decline and collapse, ecologically and civilizationally.

    Industries which have been significantly closed down are proven by that very fact to be non-essential. International tourist travel is non-essential. As much as 80% or 90% of the previous airline industry is non-essential. Cruise ships are non-essential. Personal automobiles are non-essential (whereas mass transit designed to be pandemic safe is essential and will be a great challenge to design and implement). Pets are non-essential. Elite sports and stadiums are non-essential. Excesses of fatty, starchy and sugary foods are non-essential. Excesses of animal protein are non-essential. All of these non-essential consumption items are highly damaging ecologically and to the climate and yet people continue to regard them as normal and desirable. Ecologically speaking they are abnormal and highly undesirable.

    Unless we take this almost “Dark Green” approach to economics and what should be re-started and permitted in our economy, and what should not be re-started and permitted, we will be committing ecological and human omnicide. The denouement is close. We are in a grave planetary emergency right now in every sense. In conditions of total war, people (those who survive at least) give up childish and frivolous things and knuckle down to the serious work which promises survival. We are now, or should be, joined in a common, total effort to save the biosphere and human civilization. To continue with greedy, over-indulgent capitalist over-consumption will be the height of folly and will be swiftly and comprehensively punished by the natural and biological forces of nature. Even the rapid rise and emergences of novel zoonotic diseases, of which COVID-19 is just the latest, is a sign of the pathological maladjustment of our political economy to the natural world.

  4. Ken Zimmerman
    November 13, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    In their 2009 article, ‘Culture and the evolution of human cooperation,’ Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson contend this.

    The scale of human cooperation is an evolutionary puzzle. All the available evidence suggests that the societies of our Pliocene ancestors were like those of other social primates, which means that human psychology has changed in ways that support larger, more cooperative societies that characterize modern humans. As they see it, cultural adaptation is a key factor in these changes. Over the last million years or so, people evolved the ability to learn from each other creating the possibility of cumulative, cultural evolution. Rapid cultural adaptation also leads to persistent differences between local social groups, and then competition between groups leads to the spread of behaviors that enhance their competitive ability. Then, in such culturally evolved cooperative social environments, natural selection within groups favored genes that gave rise to new, more pro-social motives. Moral systems enforced by systems of sanctions and rewards increased the reproductive success of individuals who functioned well in such environments, and this in turn led to the evolution of other regarding motives like empathy and social emotions like shame.

    The evidence cited is strong. But even stronger is the last 100 years of human history. In two major world wars, dozens of smaller wars, the evolution of ever larger cooperative team-work institutions (e.g., political parties, economic corporations, sports teams, government establishments, social media) and the conflicts among these provides a focused and useful explanation of that history. When nation states were new in the 18th and 19th centuries, they carried this cultural evolution. But since that period the nation state has been crisscrossed and sub-divided into many cooperative groups that increasingly compete with one another for both attention and power (political, economic, and status). Over time the competition between cooperative groups has come to dominate societies like the US and UK. Other locations have seen less splintering due to overriding political, religious, or geographic factors that suppressed the proliferation of cooperative groups. In the US these factors either no longer exist or have been entrenched in a cooperative group. Which makes American society especially dysfunctional and chaotic. And prone to more and more harsh violent confrontations.

    • November 13, 2020 at 7:18 pm

      When you look at the recent history of the USA and other western countries, Libertarian ideology in the form that James McGill Buchanan espoused in Public Choice Theory and Milton Friedman described in his article about the social responsibility of corporations, a different narrative developed reinforced by some of what is referred to above. Buchanan wrote an article criticizing the Chris parable of the Good Samaritan because it fostered socialism which is how too many Americans perceive government support of people and communities. That economic paradigm placed competition and efficiency as the highest values and the drivers of economic progress measured by the increase in GDP.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 14, 2020 at 1:38 pm

        Something and someone like Buchanan and his ‘Public Choice’ theory would be expected in the sequence proposed by Boyd and Richerson. Public Choice subverts everything to welfare of the property owners (even in those instances where most of the property was simply money). One of the smallest. most cohesive, and narrow-minded groups created in the evolution described by Boyd and Richerson is the wealthy (plutocracy). Buchanan tailored his theories specifically to the needs of this group. This was also one of the groups (along with the ‘mob’ of ordinary people) that the founders of the US feared most. Buchanan subverted religion, the Constitution, democracy, and ultimately the physical and emotional welfare of 99%+ of the American and world population to the welfare of this group. Buchanan begins by ‘reinventing’ how people make political decisions and choices. Buchanan concluded that you could only understand them as individuals seeking personal advantage. Buchanan observed that in the 1950s Americans commonly assumed that elected officials wanted to act in the public interest. Buchanan vehemently disagreed — that was a belief he wanted, as he put it, to “tear down.” Political decisions were made to gain individual advantage in as many situations as possible.

        Buchanan’s view of human nature was distinctly dismal. Adam Smith saw human beings as self-interested and hungry for personal power and material comfort, but he also acknowledged social feelings like compassion and fairness. Buchanan, in contrast, insisted that people were primarily driven by venal self-interest. Crediting people with altruism or a desire to serve others was “romantic” fantasy. Politicians and government workers were out for themselves, and so, for that matter, were teachers, doctors, and civil rights activists. They wanted to control others and wrest away their resources: “Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves,” he wrote in his 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty. Obviously, Buchanan reasoned the group in the greatest danger in society were the property owners since they were a small group whose property the larger group of ‘voters’ would attempt to seize through the political process. This must be stopped said Buchanan because it would wreck society. Since society is a cutthroat realm of makers (entrepreneurs) constantly under siege by takers (everybody else), the heart of society, the makers must be protected as all costs. Buchanan’s language about the situation was often both harsh and uncompromising, warning that makers were the “prey” of “parasites” and “predators” out to fleece them.

        Buchanan even went to the trouble of re-writing the Biblical parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ to make his points. In her book ‘Democracy in Chains,’ historian Nancy MacLean describes Buchanan’s efforts here this way.

        Buchanan summarized this piece of what he termed ‘prescriptive diagnosis’ thus: “We may simply be too compassionate for our own well-being or for that of an orderly and productive free society.” He then applied a game-theory thought experiment—never, of course, empirical research, which he spurned—to make the argument. His “hypothesis” was “that modern man has become incapable of making the choices that are required to prevent his exploitation by predators of his own species, whether the predation be conscious or unconscious.”
        Predators of his own species? It was a perverse appropriation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a kind resident of Samaria comes to the aid of a Jewish traveler who has been stripped, robbed, beaten, and left to die—a victim of predators, in other words—in the story Jesus used to show his followers that one should love his neighbor as himself, even when the suffering neighbor was a member of a despised out-group, as Jews were to Samaritans.

        In the view of the libertarian economist, Jesus was mistaken. Conscripting the Good Samaritan story, Buchanan made his case that “modern man [had] ‘gone soft’”: he lacked the “strategic courage” needed to restore the market to its proper ordering. By this logic, what seemed to be the ethical thing to do—help someone in need—was not, after all, the correct thing to do, because the assistance would encourage the recipient to “exploit” the giver rather than to solve his own problems. Buchanan used as an analogy the spanking of children by parents: it might hurt, but it taught “the fear of punishment that will inhibit future misbehavior.”

        Similarly, “the potential parasite” needed curbing to prevent efforts to “deliberately exploit” society’s “producers.” More than any other piece, this article captured the stark morality of libertarianism, offering, as it were, the cause’s prescription for how America’s third century could reverse the “soft” errors of its second. The trick, though, was to figure out how to bind the foolish Samaritan, qua government, from giving out perverse incentives—how to shackle the Samaritan, so to speak. As Buchanan noted in conclusion, “welfare reform” was “only one of many applications, and by no means the most important.” It was true: his eyes were set on much bigger game.

        That bigger game we have seen in the abandonment of constitutional democracy, the destruction of science and public education, and elevation of corporate ‘rights’ over even those of biological Americans. Add to this the weaponization of religion and racism, the wholesale and often violent suppression of the rights of assembly and free speech of Americans, and the ever narrowing of American government to a wealth-centered oligarchy. These changes are no accident. Buchanan dreamed them up to ‘protect society.’ But they were bought and paid for by entities such as the Koch Foundation and the Federalist Society. The current election crisis is a decision point for America. Either it will keep the constitutional democracy from which it began, evolve to a full participation popular democracy, or sink forever into oligarchy.

        It is my view that awarding Buchanan a Nobel prize for this manure is like awarding Hitler a Nobel prize for European population control.

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